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Stage right at the Tokyo Dome, one hour shy of showtime, with 50,000 fans already in their seats and the heady pre-concert atmosphere slowly intensifying, John Hammel, Sir Paul McCartney’s long-standing personal assistant and guitar roadie, is delineating the tools of the boss’s trade. ‘This is the Epiphone – the Taxman guitar solo guitar – and this is the Höfner [bass] from 1963,’ Hammel says. He hefts the bass deftly, 40 years’ diligent service guiding his hands in the post-soundcheck gloom. ‘It used to have the list of song titles stuck on it, on the back of an old Senior Service cigarette packet – Paul wrote it out at Candlestick Park,’ Hammel says, referring to the Beatles’ last ever public concert, at the San Francisco baseball stadium on August 29 1966. ‘We took it off because it was getting wrecked.’
Those, he adds, are the only two ‘historic’ instruments. By that he means Beatles vintage. But there’s plenty more history racked here in two soft-lined flight cases. His fingers flit over an Epiphone acoustic, ‘the one he played Yesterday on at The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964’. That world-famous telecast in front of 73 million American viewers, the Fab Four’s US debut, the spark that lit the inferno of global Beatlemania 50 years ago next month – that qualifies as ‘historic’, surely? No matter, Hammel is now fingering a 1960 Gibson flame-top, ‘which is a really rare guitar, being left-handed. Linda bought that for him years ago.’
Aside from the 10 basses and guitars, there is a 1920s ukulele, ‘which is the one George gave to Paul, I think when we were doing Anthology…’ he frowns, referring to George Harrison and the 1995 Beatles documentary and CD series. ‘And Johnny Depp gave him that one,’ he adds, lifting the Baratto cigar-box guitar that appears in the 2013 documentary Sound City, directed by the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl – an appearance that earned McCartney a nomination for tomorrow’s Grammy Awards, where he will also perform. He has three other nominations, relating to a Wings album reissue and his 2012 covers album, Kisses on the Bottom. His recent album New was not eligible for the 2014 Grammys.
‘And on this mandolin,’ Hammel says, ‘he wrote a little tune for his daughter Beatrice.’ That composition, Dance Tonight, inspired by McCartney’s now 10-year-old child with his ex-wife Heather Mills, is on his 2007 album, Memory Almost Full. ‘He wrote it in the kitchen. Then he did a video using it, with Natalie Portman.’
Welcome to the inside of Paul McCartney’s world. Every step is freighted with history. Every anecdote can’t help but be a name-drop. Every song tells a story, and vice versa.
It is November 2013 and we are in Japan: the latest stop on his Out There world tour, which has been running, on-and-off, since last spring. In fact, given that Out There followed hot on the heels of the On the Run tour (2011-12), which succeeded the Up and Coming tour (2010-11), which came in the wake of the Good Evening Europe tour (2009), which grew out of the Summer Live 09 tour, you could say that McCartney has been circling the globe regularly for four and a half years.
Sir Paul McCartney is 71 years old. He has been on the road, on and off, for more than 50 months. ‘…for all my life, love!’ McCartney interjects with a campy Scouse flourish, practically bouncing on the sofa in his flower-strewn, scent-filled Tokyo Dome dressing room. Behind him, a giant TV screen is showing, rather improbably, some iteration of You’ve Been Framed.
With little prompting, he recalls the Beatles’ visit to Tokyo. In late June 1966 the band’s JAL flight from London touched down into the middle of national controversy. A number of Japanese conservatives objected to the band playing the Nippon Budokan arena. Lovable mop-tops or not, no western pop group should be desecrating the spiritual home of sumo. Tension filled the air. Armoured vehicles and 35,000 police were required to protect the Beatles, who were effectively trapped in their hotel for the duration of the three-concert trip.
Even now, McCartney is nonplussed by the furore. ‘I mean, where we’d come from I don’t think there’s any sport that deserves that kind of respect. Certainly not wrestling!’ And he says this as a bona fide sumo fan – before arriving in Tokyo, his visit to the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament in Fukuoka was front-page news. ‘So we didn’t really get it. And then there was some guy that was threatening to commit hara-kiri if we were there. We thought, “That’s going a bit too far.”’
Not as far as things went on the Beatles’ next stop: the Philippines. There, a perceived snub to the first lady Imelda Marcos resulted in a near-riot at Manila airport. A month later they were touring America. And just over two weeks after that came their Candlestick Park swansong, the band and their tiny PA drowned out by a stadium boiling over with Beatlemania. The Beatles never played another public concert.
‘Yeah,’ McCartney says, nodding. ‘We were fed up by then. We’d had enough.’
But that was a long time ago. And now it seems that the solo McCartney – well past that pensionable age of when-I’m-64 – won’t ever have had enough of performing live.
We have convened backstage a short time before tonight’s gig, the first of three sold-out nights in Tokyo. Gym-lean and shaggy-haired, ‘Macca’ had greeted me with a hearty ‘Yo! Come on!’, followed by a yelled, ‘Dough eatah she mashy tay!’– his scrupulously rehearsed, phonetic rendition of ‘you’re welcome!’ in Japanese. McCartney will deploy it, and other native-language greetings, throughout his six-show stay in Japan, much to the delight of the locals.
Backstage McCartney exudes a Tiggerish enthusiasm. It is a tonic, but it may also be an interrogator-controlling device, something that must be calmed and skirted. So, anyway: all those years on tour, and the current live show (him, four musicians, 36-plus songs, flames and explosions for Live and Let Die) is a three-hour monster. Can he explain that ceaseless drive to perform like that? He is, after all, pretty much a newlywed, having married the American businesswoman Nancy Shevell in October 2011.
‘I don’t know, you know,’ he begins, his glottal Liverpudlian accent remarkably strong. ‘It’s a weird one because I kind of expected two things: to be jaded and knackered. But it just doesn’t happen. I think it might be something to do with the pacing of this current show.
‘And then, nowadays, with this band, the audiences are so receptive. And it’s something to do with the sort-of-legend being like a kind of… avalanche,’ he decides, ‘coming behind me. I’m sort of running down the hill from this avalanche of fame.’
The lust for performing, he says, is something that’s hardwired into him from his time with the Beatles in Hamburg, when their German employers fed them amphetamine-style diet pills – Preludin – to help the band career through multiple club gigs every day. It was copper-bottomed back home in Liverpool, during their ground-zero residency at the Cavern, the scene of some 292 Beatles performances.
‘It’s that tipping point thing, isn’t it, 10,000 hours?’ he nods, referring to Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that true masters of their craft must spend that many hours practising. ‘I think there’s a bit of that to it, yeah. It’s all I’ve ever done, in one respect. It’s like I’ve always just worked in that factory, and in fact I kinda like it. It’s home.’
Taking a longer view, McCartney recalls his ‘great dream’ as a ‘little kid’: the desire to ‘get an electric guitar and plug it in and be too loud for the neighbours. And there was something thrilling about that. And that’s still the case. Only there are no neighbours now – the neighbours are in the audience and they paid this time round!’
And how they paid. The six Japanese shows will generate $40.6 million in ticket sales, the cherry on a worldwide concert gross of $105.8 million in 2013. Last year his publishing company McCartney Productions Limited (MPL) – headquartered smack in the middle of Soho, in central London – had a turnover of £27.4 million, a nice top-up to a fortune estimated at £680 million. That figure, which includes Shevell’s fortune, kept McCartney at the top of the musicians’ category of The Sunday Times Rich List for the 25th consecutive year.
It is odd to consider, given his cornerstone role in pop culture for half a century, but Sir Paul McCartney has never been more popular. As much would be attested by concert audiences from America (40,000 fans in your average baseball field) to Moscow (getting on for 300,000 in Red Square). The world, it is clear, can’t get enough of him. And nor, to this day, can he get enough of the world.
McCartney’s 16th solo album, New, which contains his most vital collection of songs in an age, was released late last year, shepherded by a number of hip and/or connected young producers: Mark Ronson, Paul Epworth, Giles Martin (the son of the Beatles’ sonic guru, George) and Ethan Johns (the son of the Beatles and Rolling Stones engineer, Glyn). That modern production, though, was just the packaging on terrific songwriting. Urgent and energetic but also wistful and autumnal, it’s the sound of a 71-year-old, thrice-married father-of-five reflecting on a life fully lived – but not done with living yet.
I spent two eight-hour days in the company of Team Macca at the Tokyo Dome. I talked to the vegetarian-only catering crew and the VIP ticket wrangler (for those high-roller fans, at his afternoon soundchecks McCartney effectively does an hour-long matinee performance); to the piano technician (‘Paul’s not as much of a pounder as other artists’) and the lighting/creative director (‘Paul has a top-to-bottom interest in every element of the show’). The backbone of the 90-strong touring party are long-standing employees and colleagues. He has been playing with his Anglo-American band – Paul Wickens (keyboards), Rusty Anderson (guitars), Brian Ray (guitars), Abe Laboriel Jr (drums) – for almost 12 years, which makes them a longer-running live concern than both the Beatles and Wings (the post-Fab Four band he formed with his first wife, Linda, who died of breast cancer in 1998).
His front-of-house sound engineer, Paul ‘Pab’ Boothroyd, has has worked for him for a quarter of a century. The tour director, Barrie Marshall, has been on board for 24 years, as has McCartney’s two-man Scottish security detail. The production manager, Mark Spring, responsible for organising the tour’s two 747s full of equipment, joined 11 years ago from Madonna’s Drowned World tour. McCartney’s manager, Scott Rodger (who also manages Arcade Fire and Beady Eye), is still classed as a new boy, having been around for a scant seven years.
All attest to McCartney’s work ethic, energy, rigour, politeness and down-to-earthness. You would expect as much from those on his payroll. Yet their responses are all so similar, but without sounding scripted, that it is hard to imagine they are spinning a party line.
I ask each of them to tell me something that might surprise people about McCartney.
Boothroyd: ‘He could easily slip off to the pub with you and have a pint.’
Phil Romano (piano technician): ‘I’ve never seen him miss a soundcheck in nearly 12 years of working with him.’
Marshall: ‘I wrote a letter to him once, and the grammar in his reply was phenomenal – he actually put a colon in here, a full-stop in there. So whenever I write to him I’m very careful!’
Ray: ‘He’s never rolled his eyes once at playing Hey Jude again.’
Laboriel Jr: ‘He’s a Breaking Bad fan.’
Anderson: ‘He likes a margarita. And it has to be with fresh orange juice. That’s his drink. And he’ll dip his cheese and pickle in it afterwards. It’s a very strange concoction.’
Rodger: ‘I guarantee he’ll be back home doing the school-run on Friday. Wherever Paul is in the world, it’ll be planes, trains and automobiles, just to pick Beatrice up. I’ve seen him come off stage in Brazil, 100,000 people, get on a plane, fly straight to London, helicopter to Sussex, get in the car, drive, school-run. That, for me, is the mark of the man. And age doesn’t come into it. He keeps us all going.’
It was his children that were McCartney’s prime concern during his most infamous previous visit to Japan. In January 1980 customs officers at Narita airport found 8oz of cannabis in his luggage. McCartney faced a sentence of seven years’ hard labour. In the end he was imprisoned for only nine days. Still, it was a sobering experience.
Reflecting now, he admits it was one of the scariest experiences of his life. ‘It was weird because, in the West, we had come through this thing,’ he begins, meaning, I think, the 1960s, ‘and we didn’t think pot was quite such a big deal. But we had been warned, “Don’t do it. It really is a big deal in Japan.” So when I was arrested I really blamed myself. I just thought, “You’re such an idiot!” My main thing was putting Linda and the kids through it. I kinda wouldn’t have minded so much if it was just me and I’m just some sailor on leave in Tokyo, and I get nicked for something…
‘Luckily,’ he says, brightening, ‘I wasn’t just some sailor, because people wrote in from all round the world. There were messages from Teddy Kennedy and John and Yoko, and people the Japanese respected. So I think that carried some weight in my defence.’
As recounted in Tom Doyle’s recent book about McCartney in the 1970s, the scrupulously researched Man on the Run, on his return to Britain McCartney wrote a memoir, Japanese Jailbird. Then he locked it away, unpublished. He said he wrote it so that if his son, James, two at the time, wanted to read it when he was 30, he could.
James McCartney, himself a musician, is now 36. Did he read it?
‘Ah, yeah!’ McCartney chuckles. ‘I gave all my kids a copy – I don’t know if they read it. I would have liked to have written about it while I was there. That would have actually made it easier. But you weren’t allowed writing materials – I think in case you stuffed the pencil up your nose or something. So I had it all in my brain; my brain was bursting with all these details.
‘So when I got back, each morning I used to go and write for a couple of hours. It was good cos all the details were fresh. I gave a copy to each of my kids.’ He says that ‘one of the girls’ – Heather (Linda’s daughter), an artist/potter, Mary, a photographer, or Stella, a fashion designer – recently admitted that she’d ‘had a little look at it. But I’m not sure any of them’s read it. It’s 20,000 words!’
He insists he will never publish it; but it did what he needed it to do. ‘It was “cathartic,” ’ he says in inverted commas. ‘I never knew what that word meant, but it was that: it got rid of it.’
And now here he is again, back in Japan. He is jiggling in his seat now. Some kind of internal alarm clock – the siren call of showtime – is ringing deep inside Sir Paul McCartney. I ask him about his plans for 2014. It seems that, as rumoured, he may well play the final show at Candlestick Park before it is knocked down to make way for (of course) a shopping mall. Barrie Marshall, who has to route his tour dates round McCartney’s child-custody routine with Mills, is off to South Korea on a fact-finding mission, while other new touring markets – he mentions the Caucasus – are on his horizon.
Beatles-wise, there is always something going on to keep him busy. Next month there is a star-studded television show celebrating the 50th anniversary of that Ed Sullivan debut. There’s an accompanying 13-CD release, The US Albums. A graphic novel about the life of ‘fifth Beatle’ Brian Epstein, their late manager, is being made into a feature-length film. But for McCartney personally, ‘I’ve got a few things to do. I did a book, an animation project – and it was that girl Nancy Shevell…’ he says, eyes suddenly twinkling. ‘Now she was – oh!’ he squeaks, looking up. Shevell has walked into the room. ‘Honestly I wasn’t talking about you baby!’ he says playfully.
‘I think you were,’ replies the cool, tall drink of water that is Mrs McCartney. ‘Hi, sweetie,’ she says, bending to give him an audible smacker.
‘I’m telling him my entire life story here,’ McCartney says.
‘Well, it’s never been told,’ she replies wryly.
Regaining his composure, McCartney explains that the ‘animation project’ is a cinematic adaptation of a children’s book, High In the Clouds, which he co-wrote eight years ago. It will be a musical, so he has some songs to write. ‘And then,’ he beams, ‘I’ll see what Barrie has to say. He’ll go, “I’ve got an offer from so-and-so.”’
‘…Kazakhstan here we come?’ I suggest.
‘It could be Kazakhstan,’ McCartney says, smiling. ‘You never know.’
Later that night – after another blistering three-hour set, and after (as tradition dictates) the touring party gather to clap the sweaty band on to the bus that whisks them straight from the venue before the audience are out of their seats – McCartney hosts a private drinks party on the penthouse floor of his hotel. It is partly a birthday celebration in honour of Shevell, who turns 54 the next day.
At some point in the festivities, McCartney talks to every clump of people gathered by the bar, DJ booth and vegetarian buffet. As he drifts around the two-dozen-plus coterie of musicians, crew and his inner circle of touring business associates, you might describe it as ‘working the room’. But such is his bouncing jollity and eagerness to converse, that phrase would do him a disservice. It’s McCartney in his lifelong comfort zone, surrounded by close musical friends and family – a feeling underlined when, at midnight, he commandeers a piano and starts a rousing singalong of Happy Birthday.
The rest of the time his tour DJ, Chris Holmes, was playing party tunes at top volume. He turned up the heat with You Really Got Me by The Kinks. The first two people on the (non-existent) dancefloor were McCartney and Shevell. Then Holmes segued into Martha and the Vandellas’ Nowhere To Run. The happy couple kept on boogieing. Nobody joined them. They didn’t seem to care.